The Day My Dad Died

| Dec 26, 2022
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By Guest Contributor Cassandra Williamson.

“You need to go home,” a female voice said in my head. Dad had been sick for weeks and in the hospital at South Williamson ARH (Appalachian Regional Hospital). For most of those long days, he was in ICU unable to communicate. Friday, March 21st, 1997, her voice grew louder as the day sped by, “You need to go home.”

I was tired. It had been a long week. I had made the drive back to my childhood home in eastern Kentucky several times over the past few weeks. It was taking a toll on me, but this was my dad. He was the person I looked up to and thought the world of. To see him going through so much pain was heart wrenching. To know that it was only a matter of time before he…. His lungs were failing and it was causing the other organs to weaken and fail too as his body struggled for air.

Dad’s doctor told him one time that he needed to quit smoking because it was destroying his lungs, but Dad asked the doctor, “I’ve been a welder since my teens. With all those fumes from the welding process, what effect did that have on my lungs?” The doctor said it most likely contributed to the lung issues he was experiencing, but that smoking made it worse. Of course, Dad was bullheaded too. He had been smoking since around the age of 13 he told me once. I think the pack of Camels rolled up in his sleeve was a permanent feature.

Dad had been in the hospital for several weeks, but this week he was in ICU. It wasn’t looking good for him either. I knew what was coming, but knowledge and really knowing something at a deep personal level are two completely different things. Rarely does academic knowledge carry emotional content, but to really know something requires that you step beyond academia and into an overlaying of emotional intelligence and content on that knowledge too. It’s more powerful and the memories last longer. What Dad was going through was the “well beyond” kind of knowledge for me. Like I have done all my life, I tried to be strong, in public. But away from everyone, it was too much. I cried over dad. You know, the deep sobbing kind of crying? Well, that was me when alone. My whole body would shake uncontrollably because I really did know what was coming.

I thought I was ready — A Marine Corps officer. A male Marine corps officer who did not show emotion. Who stood tall and proud and strong — for the world, on the outside. One who was hiding an even deeper secret of her own. No! To show anyone her was to die to everyone that week as dad lay dying in a hospital in South Williamson Kentucky. No! I had to be strong — for Mom, for my brothers and sisters, and my family. I had to keep everything in just a little longer.

What my brothers, sisters and mom never knew was that once, several years prior to that fateful Friday in March of 1997, Dad told me privately that he could not take the pain anymore and that since I was this “emotionless machine of a Marine” that he needed me to kill him. He handed me his 357 pistol. He begged me to kill him. I walked out of the room and did not speak to him again for many many long months after that. I also knew that he had most likely asked others to do that too, but was never sure. He really was hurting — emotionally and physically.

My dad was a fighter. He was also a very smart man knowledgeable in all kinds of things. So many secrets held for so long. So many hurts and pains, and even writing this today is painful after all these years.

Back when I was a student at the Naval Academy in Annapolis I had brought some friends home for a weekend. We had been camping in northern West Virginia so we drove down to the southern end of the state to visit my family. We were the 11th company crew. But one day Dad looked at me and said, “Son, ride with me to the store. I need to get some cigarettes.” As we pulled into the parking lot at the Southside Happy Mart, Dad looked at me and said, “I think one of your friends is gay. You know I don’t like that.” I said, “Dad, I don’t know. I don’t think so, but it also doesn’t matter.” “Well,..I do not like that, and he needs to go” Dad said. Growing up, I knew of Dad’s hatred of gays. He even had a hard time saying that word. God forbid if he heard “homosexual.” From my perspective, Dad spent lots of time when I was a small child and all the way into high school trying to make sure I presented less than feminine and as male. Dad saw but refused to see. So when I joined the military he must have thought, “Good! That will “fix” him.” I can laugh at that now. He thought I was gay, but I wasn’t. He really did try though to do what he saw as the right thing for me and his family. He was the best person I ever knew then or now.

I am very proud of my dad. I can say though that not once did I ever tell my dad that I loved him. But, we were not allowed to show our emotions and love for each other growing up. It just wasn’t allowed. I know why. Dad was really afraid that his oldest “son” was gay. He was trying to not let it out. Well. . . I’m not. Never was. I am more than what he could ever grasp. But, I can say loudly that I love my dad. Always did. And, I am so sorry for not saying that to him when he was living — regardless of what he thought about it.

So. . . I did. Mostly. But I did. I hid everything. All the secrets about me combined with the “knowledge” of Dad’s imminent death were really killing me, but God is good. God gave me strength where I had none whatsoever. I did not know that then, but I know it now. So. . . .

Earlier Friday morning around 4a.m. the alarm goes off, but I had already been up for 30 minutes anyway, something that’s not unusual for me: as a matter of fact, I started writing this article at 4:30 a.m. twenty years later while living in Warrensburg, Missouri.

Some things about us never change. Shout Hallelujah! Can I hear an “amen?” And let the church bells ring because I know that more intimately than most can ever imagine. Many things about humans, all of our traits, are innate — we’re born that way, then things get reinforced or stomped on after birth by those who have other expectations for you from them and society and our well intentioned churches.

Getting up that early came from habits learned while attending Belfry High School in Pike County, Kentucky (Go Pirates!) that were reinforced in the Navy while serving on three different submarines as a “spook” — a cryptologist, then at Navy Prep in Rhode Island, and at the Naval Academy in Annapolis (Can’t write that without saying “Go Navy! Beat Army!”) and later in the Marine Corps (Semper Fi! Sister.). I stayed up studying and reading until 1 or 2 a.m. every night then up early the next day. There was too much to learn. I did not want to miss a single moment of time. Those habits have never changed throughout my life. Believe me. I am so very glad too. This woman would not be among the living if that were not so.

It’s been a life of persistent constants from early childhood. Some things I’ve always known made up this person from the very beginning of my life — time habits, reader, thinker, driven, determined, go getter, woman, faithful, focused, but in pain too from the secrets I had kept from family and friends, fiercely independent, and trying in everything I ever did in school, the military, in business, in church, all unsuccessfully because God not only made me but has been with me all along, to get rid of the woman in me. I did not want her, I did not know what to do with her. She scared me. I knew she was me though. I just couldn’t see God’s hand in her because I had spent so much time denying her existence and fearful of who she was in me, but that day, the still small voice was telling me to “go home.” I resisted both calls until they became so loud they could not be ignored any more.

Dad was one of those people everyone knew and claimed as a friend. He was active in the community as a respected Boy Scout troop leader of Forest Hills Troop 305. He was a member of the Turkey Creek Church of God and a long time member and leader in the Stone, KY Masonic Lodge and the Williamson Area Masonic Lodge. He was a 32nd degree Mason in the York and Scottish rites. He was education director for the eastern part of Kentucky for the Masons, and was a former Commander of the local DAV. Dad could and did build almost anything, and could learn new skills and new subjects with an ease few have. He owned commercial construction businesses, was a partner in a concrete company at one time, made ornamental wrought iron fencing and railing, built many regional commercial buildings, coal prep facilities, aircraft hangars, had worked in the coal mines and at an armature rebuild company, but yet took the time to lead the boy scouts in monthly meetings and take them on camping, hiking and canoeing trips, and even taught astronomy at the local college.

Dad had also served in the National Guard and prior to that had been a Seabee in the US Navy where he learned to weld and fabricate things. The Seabees are the construction battalion (C B) for the Navy. Dad had served in the mid 1950s and had been part of a 21 man crew assigned to build test platforms for the hydrogen and atomic bomb tests that took place in the Pacific during that time. That crew also “volunteered” to fly into the blast cloud after the test to sample radiation, and to also see what effects radiation could have on the human body. Yes! Dad volunteered for this. I checked the documents years later when I had the clearances to see for myself. Those documents have since been released to the public — but were heavily redacted as one would expect.

Dad told one story of flying out into a blast cloud in a helicopter with a box of photographic plates then having to count the “hits” on those plates when they returned to base. What Dad did not tell me was that those crews were also required to swallow a dosimeter attached to a string. When the “trip” was over, doctors pulled the dosimeter back up and out of their mouths and it was also checked for “hits.” What was Col. EA Pinson doing? Pinson was a military scientist in charge of the test programs for the US Air Force who put himself through those same tests to “lead” his men. Pinson was checking to see if the same level of radioactive particles that hit the photographic plates were making it through the human body and whether any aircraft shielding could be designed to protect troops during a nuclear blast — turns out, No! Only alpha particles could be stopped, but they were the more harmless particles released during a nuclear blast. Dad was there. His mom and dad warned him many times to not be in the Pacific because, “they were testing those hydrogen bombs there.” I don’t think they ever knew that he was in the middle of all those tests and was part of that program.

The woman Dad called mom was actually his grandmother, Rebecca (Porter) Williamson. His birth mother, Eva Etta Blevins, who was from Lansing in Ashe County North Carolina, had died in September of 1932 when he was only three years old, about one and half years after his sister was born. Eva is buried in Lansing at the family’s home church cemetery. Dad’s father, my grandfather, was Gideon Dee Williamson, II — a son of Gideon & Rebecca (Porter) Williamson. At the time of Dad’s Navy service, Gideon(II) was married to Jesse Deskins. Gideon and Jesse had three daughters — Velma, Mary, and Lynette. Gideon Sr died in 1932, and Gideon (II) died in 1964.

I still remember that day as vividly as if I were walking through it again, It was overcast and there was a chill in the air. I didn’t drink coffee back then and only started drinking coffee after I stopped fighting me and had been living honestly as me beginning in 2016. I can’t believe that coffee is actually pretty good. I had to drink it once though — nurse’s orders after a scuba dive, in November of ‘79, off the coast of Rhode Island — but, that’s another story. I like my coffee with a little Sweet Italian Creamer and occasionally a swirl of strawberry syrup. Oh! So good. Still addicted to Pepsi though. Need to stop with the Pepsi because it does not do this woman any favors around the waistline.

If you follow me on Facebook and watch my videos there or on Youtube you know I can go on and on and on — just to avoid a painful subject. I’m doing it now.

So I started my day like all others — with a glass of Pepsi and a quick snack before going to the office. Drove to the office. Checked all the assignments for the day. Sent crews out. The voice was becoming very insistent, “go home.”

There was a sense of dread that day.

I had been back home earlier in the week but Dad was not responsive. I knew that it was a only a matter of time. The family knew it too.

I left from Murfreesboro around 4 or 5 in the afternoon and drove the 7 hour trip straight through to South Williamson. Late that Friday night moments after driving by Roger’s Funeral Home in Belfry Kentucky which is just a few miles from the hospital, a hearse passes me going toward Belfry. Do you know the feeling that comes out of nowhere? The one that washes over you from head to toe? And leaves you shaken? I had the sense that my dad was in that vehicle. I started crying. I just knew I was too late. Drove faster to get to the hospital. I ran through the doors and made my way back to ICU. He wasn’t there. I went to the waiting area. Mom, Gideon and Edna were there crying. I was too late to say goodbye to my much loved dad. He had died while I was driving to see him.

I love you Dad. Love always and forever.

Your daughter Cassandra.


Cassandra Williamson served in the US Navy and the USMC. She is a graduate of the US Naval Academy. She has four children and eight grandchildren and lives in Tuscaloosa Alabama. She works closely with the Tuscaloosa VA on their LGBTQ+ committee, as a veteran representative on their suicide prevention and advisory committee, and formerly served on the Veteran’s Advisory Board of the Birmingham (AL) VAMC. She speaks frequently about trans and LGBTQ+ veteran issues to groups large and small as she travels the nation visiting our veterans and providers. She regularly gives lectures to interns at VAs around the country on Transgender Affirming care using narrative exposure therapy (a way to think about trans veteran counseling developed first by Dr. Tiffany Lange formerly of Hampton Roads VAMC).

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